Chef Victor Barry’s Piano Piano
Toronto chef Victor Barry likes pizza more than you do. “I know everyone says they love pizza,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t know anyone who loves pizza the way that I love pizza. I don’t want to make light of alcoholism, but the way some people feel about alcohol, that’s how I feel about pizza. Pizza calms me down. It soothes me. It makes me happy. I seriously crave pizza.” His licence plate, he admits, is PIZAPIE.
For a chef who made his name cooking the most elaborate and delicious tasting menus this country has ever seen, his fondness for something so humble seems a bit surprising. What’s even more shocking is that, after regularly consuming several pies a week pretty much since he was a kid, Barry hasn’t had a single slice in over a month.
The pizza boycott is part of a complete overhaul the chef is making, one that extends from his physical health (he’s a third of the way to his goal of dropping 90 pounds) to his business (closing his old restaurant, Splendido, and opening his new restaurant, Piano Piano, in the same location) and his emotional well-being that includes a refocusing of priorities and a celebration of his new lease on life.
The 34-year-old Barry is widely regarded as one of the finest chefs in the country, but his origins are relatively ordinary. His first real job in the kitchen (not counting part-time work as a preteen at his uncle’s pizza place) was as a high school co-op student at the Prince of Wales Hotel in his hometown of Niagara-on-the-Lake. After that, he spent a couple of years at the two-Michelin-starred Gidleigh Park in Devon, U.K. After returning to Canada while still barely in his 20s, Barry drifted to Whistler to become an opening chef at the Four Seasons Resort. “Originally I went there to try and have a little fun because I’d been working like crazy,” he says, “but I just ended up working harder than ever.” After a short stint in Vancouver at the now-closed Parkside restaurant, Barry returned to Ontario and was hired by chef David Lee at Toronto’s beloved Splendido restaurant in late 2005. “I started there as a pastry apprentice, really low on the totem pole,” Barry recalls, “but that’s how those kinds of restaurants work, so that was fine.” Soon, an offer came from Waterloo House, a Relais & Châteaux property in Bermuda, which proved too tempting to resist, and the chef spent the next two years turning out some of the most ambitious food Bermuda had ever seen while also, by his own admission, “partying like a rock star and going to the beach every day.”
The 34-year-old Barry is widely regarded as one of the finest chefs in the country.
One evening, Barry’s former boss Lee—who had returned to the island where he got married to celebrate his anniversary—came to dine at the now-demolished Waterloo House. Lee offered Barry the sous-chef position at Splendido, and having had enough sun and sand, Barry agreed. It would prove to be a momentous move.
Two years into his work at Splendido, just as the recession of 2008 was taking hold, Lee—who by this time was largely involved with the running of his other restaurant, Nota Bene—asked Barry if he would like to buy Splendido. “I was 26 and so naive I was just like, ‘Sure, let’s do it,’ ” Barry recalls. “I didn’t think about it at all. I think the most expensive thing I owned up until that point was a $1,000 used motorcycle.”
Against a lot of advice to turn the space into something cheap and fun—a brasserie-style restaurant with inexpensive food and high turnover—Barry decided to keep running Splendido at a high level, but one that was a little less expensive. “People were still getting Splendido-quality food, but at two-thirds the price. We went from doing, on a crazy night, 80 people to regularly doing 160 people.”
Even though they got rid of the old-fashioned champagne and cheese trolleys and downscaled slightly, Barry got bored. “My tendency was always to cook fine-dining food when I was younger,” he says. “All those places I worked, and the chefs I looked up to, were all about tasting menus and really refined cooking.” Within a couple of years, the restaurant abandoned the à la carte menu and moved to a single tasting menu that would change daily. “I wanted to have the best restaurant in the country,” Barry admits.
It could be argued that on some nights, no one in Canada ate better than those who dined at Splendido. “It was no holds barred. We were just constantly eager to be better all the time. We kept striving for better product, better service, more interesting food,” Barry recalls of that time.
Life, as it does, changes. Shortly after the birth of his first child, Charlotte, (now nearing three), Barry’s father passed away from cancer. Another child followed, but a month after Sofie, (now one), was born, Barry’s wife, Nikki Leigh McKean, was diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, the goal of having the best restaurant in Canada no longer seemed so important.
“Obviously after Nikki’s diagnosis, I stayed home a lot more,” Barry says, “and what I realized is that I was missing a lot with my kids and my wife, so I made the decision to have a more balanced life. I still want to work hard and I want to cook good food, but I want to spend time with my family and I want to enjoy myself.”
Barry thought about selling Splendido, moving back to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and taking a job as head chef at a golf resort or casino, something stable and less demanding. Ultimately, though, he realized that he wouldn’t be happy with that path.
“We decided to serve just the kind of food I would cook at home, the kind of food I think that people want to eat regularly.”
“It was Nikki who really talked me into doing something else with this space,” he says. “She said, ‘Let’s completely change the space and change the name and do something less stressful than a 30-course tasting menu restaurant.’ ” In late October of 2015, that’s exactly what they did. “We had designers and contractors all over the place,” Barry recalls. “We had to make decisions and make them fast, and we had to do it not knowing how Nikki was going to be healthwise, so we had to put our heads down and work together to make the best possible solution for whatever outcome came.”
The couple decided to name the restaurant Piano Piano (Italian for “slowly, slowly”) and make it a great neighbourhood restaurant, the kind of place they would like to go a couple of times a week. The focus wouldn’t be on strict interpretations of classic Italian dishes; rather, it would be North American–Italian—Napoli by way of New Jersey. “We decided to serve just the kind of food I would cook at home,” he says, “the kind of food I think that people want to eat regularly.” One of the first things he did was install a wood-burning pizza oven. Piano Piano opened in March, around the same time Nikki finished her cancer treatment. The restaurant’s decor is heavily influenced by Nikki along with designer Tiffany Pratt, with floral motifs, colourful arches, and framed artwork by Barry and Nikki’s eldest daughter.
The bright, bustling space is jammed most nights with people sharing plates of fried gnocchi and chopped salads or stuffing themselves with impeccably crusted pizzas. Familiar, common pasta dishes—spaghetti carbonara, bucatini all’Amatriciana, spaghetti vongole e cozze—are all prepared with uncommon skill. Downstairs, the former private dining room, Piccolo Piano, has been turned into a family area with games and toys for kids to play with and space to run around in after they eat while their parents split veal parmesan or a whole chicken, roasted and fried, with kale and dandelion. There’s soft serve ice cream for everyone.
There are still hints of Splendido, in the quality of the ingredients and the care of preparation, but this is a decidedly more casual, less serious restaurant and for Barry the changes go beyond service. “The biggest change for me is that when I’m at home now, I’m at home,” he says. “Before, I wasn’t. I was constantly thinking about Splendido, thinking about the food, thinking about what happened yesterday, thinking about how we can be better. I’m in a better headspace now with everything I do.”
Piano Piano, 88 Harbord Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1G5, 416-929-7788.
Photos by Nikki Leigh McKean.